Onitsha is known for its bustling open-air markets and numerous multi-storey residential buildings. It has a vibrant feel about it, provided by the hustle and chatter of its inhabitants, who are as industrious as you would expect the typical South Easterner to be.
Perhaps the greatest pride of this sprawling urban complex is its major centre of commerce, the Onitsha Main Market. It’s a restless mix of modest looking stores, makeshift kiosks and fairly decent buildings, spreading out over the west of the city and down to the great Niger River. This mass of structures, swarming with tens of thousands of people on a regular day, is the heartbeat of the metropolis.
The Onitsha Main Market is, in fact, West Africa’s biggest market by size and trade volume. The area draws in visitors from across the South East and elsewhere in the country, as well as from neighbouring countries. That’s because it serves as a dispersion point for locally produced and foreign goods. While a good deal of the trade going on within its precincts is petty, there are several merchants operating interstate and internationally focused businesses.
Onitsha owes much of its present commercial prowess to its being situated by the Niger River. Although it had a market from its earliest days (dating back to the 16th century), it didn’t become a chief trading post for the region until contacts with European business interests was established a few centuries later. It became a major port town in the colonial era. The British Royal Niger Company set up offices for its businesses in the city. Onitsha grew to become a transit point for trade along the Niger.
The market has since swelled in size, evolving into a mammoth tapestry of wooden, metal and concrete structures. These buildings house the full range of businesses you’ll expect to find in a Nigerian commercial district: small time traders, wholesale dealers, large factories, corporate offices, and the banks that provide them with financial services.
The items on sale at the market range from plain textile, clothing and shoes, to household items, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Industrial goods such as plastics and aluminium are sold there too, as are furniture and office equipment. These products are on display in specific sections (or clusters) of the market.
On weekdays, the market’s major lanes and alleys have people streaming through them. Many are buyers and sellers from within the city. There’s a large number of people from other states as well. Visitors from as far away as Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Ghana are common place. Buyers from farther off tend to be traders themselves. They purchase sizable quantities of Onitsha’s wares, and resell them in their own cities and countries. Much of this trade is made possible by the Niger Bridge, which links the city to the South West, and indeed, the rest of coastal West Africa.
Onitsha’s markets are grappling with formidable challenges. The city’s population has risen from a mere 62,000 in the early 1960s, to well over a million today. This rapid growth has put pressure on existing infrastructure, which hasn’t transformed to match the bulging population. The production centres and distribution struggle to modernize. The security challenges in the North East have also stifled some of the trade coming in from that region and the countries adjoining it.
However, the market still flourishes. Even the city’s rampant expansion into neighbouring towns and villages presents an opportunity for positive growth. Specialized markets have sprung up at its edges, all of them inspired by the same sort of energy and verve that built the Main Market. They aren’t rivaling the shiny modern shopping centres of Abuja or the modern industrial zones of Lagos; but they are gaining prominence in their own unique way.
The Onitsha Main Market is a raw gem sitting on kilometres of red and brown earth. Its people are shaping it into something more valuable. It could become one of Africa’s most prized jewels if its cutting and polishing is done with care and concern for its wellbeing and future thriving.